Ancient Words

One of the things I often must remind people about as a preacher and teacher of the Gospel is that the words of the Bible have an original, ancient audience. For example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was first written “to the churches of Galatia,” congregations of Christians living in Galatia in the mid-first century A.D. (Galatians 1:2). When studying Galatians, we have to attempt first to understand the message as those first century Christians would have understood it. If I understand the text in a way that its original audience couldn’t possibly have understood it, I don’t understand the text at all.

It struck me recently though: why do I always have to remind people about this? What I mean is, why do people tend to forget that Biblical messages had a first audience and read it as though it were written to them? I think the reason relates to something amazing that every honest Bible student discovers: though the most recent Biblical book was written over 1900 years ago, the messages of the Bible are incredibly relevant to today’s world.

This isn’t something to be overlooked. In my undergraduate studies, I studied a pretty diverse selection of literature from the ancient world (in spite of the fact that two separate professors felt the need to join one of my high school teachers in teaching me The Odyssey). While ancient literature is interesting, there is often a foreignness, an otherness that comes across when you read it. There are definitely some transcendent themes and certain literary devices that cross barriers of culture and time, but I’ve never had to be reminded when I read them that I was reading something old and foreign.

This reminds me of the hymn “Ancient Words” by Michael W. Smith. It reads as follows:

Holy words long preserved
for our walk in this world,
They resound with God's own heart
Oh, let the Ancient words impart.

Words of Life, words of Hope
Give us strength, help us cope
In this world, where e'er we roam
Ancient words will guide us Home.

Holy words of our Faith
Handed down to this age.
Came to us through sacrifice
Oh heed the faithful words of Christ.

Holy words long preserved
For our walk in this world.
They resound with God's own heart
Oh let the ancient words impart.

Ancient words ever true
Changing me, and changing you.
We have come with open hearts
Oh let the ancient words impart.

In praising the transcendent, “ever true” nature of the Bible, Smith reminds us of several things about the Bible:

1) It is ancient. It was written in a different place and time, in fact, in several different places and times. Over 40 men working over a span of at least 1600 years combined to create a unified, glorious book.

2) It has been preserved through incredible providence and sacrifice. The story of God preserving the Bible against the destructive forces of Satan is almost as impressive as the message of the Bible itself!

3) It is useful. The Bible has as much power to change lives today as it did hundreds of years ago. Open hearts come to it and are impacted by God’s own heart. The “living and powerful” message of the Bible offers needed guidance and brings about powerful change (Hebrews 4:12).

So yes, fight the urge to read the Bible as though you were its first audience, but never lose sight of the fact that God had you in mind when He brought His messages to those first audiences throughout the ages (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). To ignore my own advice and reappropriate the words of Paul, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:15).
-Patrick Swayne
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